1/18/09

Hearst Connecticut Newspapers

Greenwich Time, Stamford Advocate, Connecticut Post (Bridgeport) Danbury News-Times


By Peter Healy
Staff Writer

Michael Molgano, a Stamford man paralyzed in a 1975 diving accident, had done the same work as his able-bodied co-workers at Danbury-based Praxair Inc. and its predecessor company since 1982.

He said Praxair, an industrial gases company, had given him no preferential treatment other than equipment and other adjustments that enabled him to do his information technology job from a battery-powered wheelchair. Molgano, 49, had worked mainly from home during the past several years.
Praxair treated Molgano the same as it did the other 1,600 people it laid off late last year.

But it still hurt.

Molgano said an incoming call from his supervisor on Nov. 11 cut short a phone conversation he was having with a Praxair client in Chicago.

"She said, 'I have really bad news. You're gone. Today is your last day, and your (computer) access will be removed,' " Molgano recalled.

"I hung up the phone and just sat there, thinking about what happened," said Molgano, who represents Stamford's 15th District on the Board of Representatives. "I was just devastated for that day. I had been doing this same thing for 26 years, and they just pulled the plug -- like that."

Molgano's severance pay from Praxair ends May 31. He said he also is receiving unemployment and medical benefits while looking for a new job. His last position at the publicly traded Praxair was as a Lotus Notes coordinator.

Though he realizes Praxair faces pressure to
control costs and please stockholders, Molgano said the company could have kept him to justify the money it invested over the years to accommodate him. In addition, his paralysis from a neck injury makes it harder to compete with the hordes of job seekers out there, he said.

"I never wanted pity and never will," Molgano said. "But it's possible I'm going to become a tax recipient rather than a taxpayer."

Molgano said his savings are too small to live on, and he is eligible to collect a partial pension,

His parents' resources are limited, too. Last summer, their diner, Lou's Kitchen, closed after 38 years on Forest Street in downtown New Canaan. They could not find a buyer after a new landlord doubled their rent.

Asked about Molgano, Praxair spokesman Nigel Muir said, the company "can't comment on individual people laid off." He said the 1,600 people were cut throughout Praxair's global operations but would not say how many people it fired at the Danbury headquarters.

Last month, Praxair said in a statement that "substantial slowdown in demand in the fourth quarter" prompted it to close plants and underperforming and noncore product lines and businesses. Praxair had sales of $9.4 billion in 2007.

The former chemical giant Union Carbide, Molgano's original employ

er, spun off Praxair as a separate company in 1992.

Praxair is paying for job placement seminars that Molgano is attending.

He said he has posted a resume on monster.com and has contacted various recruiters.

"I'm trying everything to get my name out there and hopefully find something," Molgano said. "It's going to be tough right now because a lot of people with the same IT positions I had are looking for work. The market is flooded."

With Praxair and Union Carbide, Molgano had been a programmer, senior programmer analyst and senior applications developer, among several other job titles. He had commuted as far as Danbury and Tarrytown, N.Y., in an adapted van with hand controls.

Molgano and Praxair are not alone in today's job market.

The nation's jobless rate spiked to 7.2 percent last month, the highest level in 16 years, as employers cut 524,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. About 11.1 million people were unemployed in December, and another 8 million were working part time,

For all of 2008, the United States lost 2.6 million jobs, the most since 1945, the U.S. Labor Department reported.

Connecticut's unemployment rate was 6.6 percent in November, compared with 4.8 percent in December 2007 and 2.2 percent in December 2000, according to the state Department of Labor.

Locally, UST Inc. and World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. are among many companies that have announced layoffs in Connecticut and around the country.

Many people with severe disabilities are unemployed, even in good economic times, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Association.

The Rockville, Md.-based group said on its Web site that 58.8 percent of those injured at ages 16 to 59 have jobs and 41.2 percent don't work. The unemployed segment includes homemakers, retirees and students, the association said. About 250,000 to 400,000 U.S. residents have spinal cord injuries, according to the association.

Employment levels of spinal cord injured and other people with disabilities dropped in the 1990s when the economy prospered, said Eric Larson, the association's executive director.

"There's no agreement as to why," he said, adding that people's reluctance to give up government income and medical benefits for part-time work might be one cause. "There historically has been a pretty large chasm in the employment between people with visible disabilities and the general population. I have great concerns about this period and the next couple of years. The unemployment situation can only get tougher."

It's getting tougher in Connecticut, too, said Brenda Moore, director of the state Department of Social Services Bureau of Rehabilitation Services.

"We are definitely seeing the effects of the economy on our clients and services." Moore wrote in an e-mail. "Businesses are being very limited in expanding their work force in general. Our fear is that we will see an unprecedented rate of unemployment for able and employable citizens with disabilities, as they are invariably affected by the same economic pressures as the overall job market."

"And, with the job market being so poor, our Disability Determination Services unit is experiencing many more people applying for Social Security benefits," she said.

The Darien-based Obie Harrington-Howes Foundation can help spinal-injured people in Connecticut cope with tough times. It disburses financial aid for wheelchairs, computers, tuition, medical equipment, home health care, minor home renovations and vans.

"We have seen the demand for our grants increase, but I don't know how much of it is due to the economy," said Ken "Obie" Harrington-Howes, an adviser to the foundation named for him.

Harrington-Howes, a vice president and asset manager at JPMorgan Chase, was paralyzed in a 1996 swimming accident.

In the meantime, Molgano hopes to become a taxpayer again.

"I only 50 years old (as of next month). I still want to work," he said.